Verizon Throttled Data During Deadly Wildfire in California

As California lawmakers prepared on Wednesday for a key committee vote on their state’s net neutrality bill — which, in its current form, would restore the protections repealed by the FCC in December — the Santa Clara County Fire Department accused the telecom giant Verizon of dramatically cutting its data speed as it recently fought the largest recorded wildfire in California’s history.

After Verizon admitted that it slowed the fire department’s data — a despised practice known as throttling — but claimed it was a simple mistake that “has nothing to do with net neutrality,” Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams responded in a statement on behalf of the fire department on Wednesday that “Verizon’s throttling has everything to do with net neutrality.”

“It shows that the [internet service providers] will act in their economic interests, even at the expense of public safety,” Williams added. “That is exactly what the Trump administration’s repeal of net neutrality allows and encourages.”

Williams’ rebuke of Verizon and the Republican-controlled FCC’s net neutrality repeal came just a day after the Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden accused Verizon of throttling in a court filing this week. Bowden says his department was forced to pay the telecom giant to stop the throttling, despite having an “unlimited” data plan.

“In the midst of our response to the Mendocino Complex Fire, County Fire discovered the data connection for OES 5262 [a fire department vehicle that is ‘deployed to large incidents as a command and control resource’] was being throttled by Verizon, and data rates had been reduced to 1/200, or less, than the previous speeds,” Bowden wrote.

“Verizon representatives confirmed the throttling,” Bowden added, “but rather than restoring us to an essential data transfer speed, they indicated that County Fire would have to switch to a new data plan at more than twice the cost, and they would only remove throttling after we contacted the department that handles billing and switched to the new data plan.”

In a statement responding to Bowden’s filing, Verizon insisted that the throttling was a mere customer service error and said it is “reviewing the situation and will fix any issues going forward.”

But Bowden concluded that unless regulatory action is taken, Verizon will continue to exploit emergency situations like wildfires to impose higher costs on the public and reap greater profits.

“In light of our experience, County Fire believes it is likely that Verizon will continue to use the exigent nature of public safety emergencies and catastrophic events to coerce public agencies into higher-cost plans, ultimately paying significantly more for mission-critical service — even if that means risking harm to public safety during negotiations,” Bowden concluded.